At this season of the Days of Awe, we pray for a good year. What chutzpah! What audacity. Prayers are not meant to be shopping lists for God. Most of us have so much to be thankful for – are we entitled to ask for more? Perhaps we are not only asking for ourselves, but for others, for the world around us. But could a God who is able to respond also need reminders of what needs to be done? Here is another answer to why we pray for a good year. It is to remind ourselves of what is most essential in life, to clarify our values, to winnow the transient and unimportant from the enduring and worthy aspects of our existence.
Knowing what to ask for in our prayers is a vital thing. Should we ask for a long life, or for a life of meaning and purpose? The Psalmist prayed, “Teach me to number my days that I may get me a heart of wisdom.” Rabbi Joshua Heschel taught that prayer should take the mind “out of the narrowness of self-interest … it makes visible the right and reveals the false.” The famous Boston Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote in a parable that the most precious thing in life, that for which we should strive and pray, is ‘peace of mind.’
A story is told of King Solomon. Upon the death of his father David, God appeared to the young man and said, “Solomon, what shall I grant you?” Solomon replied, “I am a young lad, with no experience in leadership … grant then your servant an understanding mind to judge your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” God replied, “Because you did not ask for riches or a long life, nor for the death of your enemies, I grant you a wise and discerning mind, and also that for which you did not ask; riches and glory all your life.”
A rabbi was writing his sermon, and his young son interrupted him, asking, “Dad, how do you know what to write?” Seeking to get back to work, the father dismissively responded, “God tells me what to write.” The son pondered that and spoke again, “Then why do you cross out so much?”
When we stand before God on these Days of Awe, we present to God our prayers which are really all the rough drafts of our deeds, our blunders, our mistakes and erasures. We come to God with the hope that through the process of introspection and prayer, we may edit and improve our lives, to make a clean copy in which we can hear the voice of God. When we pray on these High Holidays, let us pray that we can learn to imitate the God in whom we strive to believe, the God who will inspire us to grow and to change, to be our best versions of ourselves.
Two old friends met at the airport. One said to the other, “You haven’t changed a bit!” How natural and flattering it is to be greeted in such a way. But when we come before God and our fellow congregants these holidays – perhaps seeing those we have not been able to gather with in person over these past years of pandemic, we should pray for a different greeting. Would that God said to us, “Glad to see you again in shul! My, how much you have changed; how much you have grown; how worthy you are of blessing.” May we be thoughtful in composing our prayers and may they be answered in the New Year as we grow in wisdom and stature and so raise ourselves up in holiness.
Rabbi David Kudan leads Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.